March 31, 2008

Find the Foucault...

Somewhere around here, I have a copy of Discipline & Punish...

Ezra Klein writes movingly in the L.A. Times that there's nothing funny about prison rape. I would hasten to add, there's nothing much funny about prison at all.

More later...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:01 PM | Comments (0)

Finished Trilby...

...on the way back from St. Louis. What a fun read. Time is scarce, so I wouldn't say it should be required reading in school, but I found bits of it to be quite wonderful. Here's Trilby being asked about the Christian faith:

'Oh dear, oh dear! And do you know about our blessed Saviour, and the Atonement and the Incarnation and the Resurrection...'

'Oh yes--I used to, at least. I used to have to learn the Catechism on Sundays--mamma made me. Whatever her faults and mistakes were, poor mamma was always very particular about that! It all seemed very complicated. But papa told me not to bother too much about it, but to be good. He said that God would make it all right for us somehow, in the end--all of us. And that seems sensible, doesn't it?

'He told me to be good, and not to mind what priests and clergymen tell us. He'd been a clergyman himself, and knew all about it, he said.

'I haven't been very good--there's not much doubt about that, I'm afraid! But God knows I've repented often enough and sore enough; I do now! But I'm rather glad to die, I think; and not a bit afraid--not a scrap! I believe in poor papa, though he was so unfortunate! He was the cleverest man I ever knew, and the best--except Taffy and the Laird and your dear son!

'There'll be no hell for any of us--he told me so--except what we make for ourselves and each other down here; and that's bad enough for anything. He told me that he was responsible for me--he often said so--and that mamma was too, and his parents for him, and his grandfathers and grandmothers for them, and so on up to Noah and ever so far beyond, and God for us all!

'He told me always to think of other people before myself; as Taffy does, and your son; and never to tell lies or be afraid, and keep away from drink, and I should be all right. But I've sometimes been all wrong, all the same; and it wasn't papa's fault, but Poor mamma's and mine; and I've known it, and been miserable at the time, and after! and I'm sure to be forgiven--perfectly certain--and so will everybody else, even the wickedest that ever lived! Why, just give them sense enough in the next world to understand all their wickedness in this, and that'll punish them enough for anything, I think! That's simple enough, isn't it? Besides, there may be no next world---that's on the cards too, you know!--and that will be simpler still!

Charming, and sensible. The whole novel's online here.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:27 PM | Comments (0)

St. Louis...

...another day, another city. I sort of like the travel -- there's anonymity in it, a sort of functionality, a Willie Lomanesque minimalism I've been enjoying, especially since my travels have very little to do with selling--I don't need anyone to commit cold hard cash to anything. Just a few hours.

The ravioli was breaded, and Mark McGwire still has a stretch of I-70 named after him....

A few more words about Trilby, which I read on the plane. On the cab ride from the airport to the hotel, which seemed to hit every red light imaginable, I kept leaning toward the door and reading a few extra paragraphs. Borges defined literary merit very simply: the best literary works are those which make you want to know what happens next. For me -- and I confess I'm hardly a representative type -- Trilby is such a book.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:41 AM | Comments (0)

March 29, 2008


It's ages since I've read fiction (well, read -- I do occasionally reread Robert Louis Stevenson for his style), but on a late night whim I ordered a copy of Trilby, by George du Maurier, from It's odd how the name Trilby, or that of George du Maurier, means so little to us--almost as if Jekyll and Stevenson were unknown, but everyone knew the infamy of Edward Hyde. (I think I recently told someone that I thought Jekyll & Hyde was the perfect work of art -- I still think this to be true, but only if the story hasn't first been ruined for us by knowing the connection between the two...)

In any case, the name missing from Trilby is Svengali...

I'm half way through the book, and unlike my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I have no idea how it will turn out, but I can't wait to see. Du Maurier is not as skilled a writer as Stevenson -- I think at least 50 or 60 pages could be cut from what I've read without the slightest diminishment -- but he does keep things moving and it is an enjoyable read.

As fascinating (and repulsive) as Svengali is (about whom more later), It's worth pausing a moment on Miss Trilby O'Farrell:

Latin and Greek are languages the Young Person should not be taught to understand — seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead — in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

But at least I am scholar enough to enter one little Latin plea on Trilby's behalf — the, shortest, best, and most beautiful plea I can think of. It was once used in extenuation and condonation of the frailties of another poor weak woman, presumably beautiful, and a far worse offender than Trilby, but who, like Trilby, repented of her ways, and was most justly forgiven —

'Quia multum amavit!'

Whether it be an aggravation of her misdeeds or an extenuating circumstance, no pressure of want, no temptations of greed or vanity, had ever been factors in urging Trilby on her downward career after her first false step in that direction — the result of ignorance, bad advice (from her mother, of all people in the world), and base betrayal. She might have lived in guilty splendour had she chosen, but her wants were few. She had no vanity, and her tastes were of the simplest, and she earned enough to gratify them all, and to spare.

So she followed love for love's sake only, now and then, as she would have followed art if she had been a man — capriciously, desultorily, more in a frolicsome spirit of camaraderie than anything else. Like an amateur, in short — a distinguished amateur who is too proud to sell his pictures, but willingly gives one away now and then to some highly-valued and much-admiring friend.
Sheer gaiety of heart and genial good-fellowship, the difficulty of saying nay to earnest pleading. She was bonne camarade et bonne fille before everything. Though her heart was not large enough to harbour more than one light love at a time (even in that Latin Quarter of genially capacious hearts), it had room for many warm friendships; and she was the warmest, most helpful, and most compassionate of friends, far more serious and faithful in friendship than in love.
Indeed, she might almost be said to possess a virginal heart, so little did she know of love's heartaches and raptures and torments and clingings and jealousies.

With her it was lightly come and lightly go, and never come back again; as one or two, or perhaps three, picturesque Bohemians of the brush or chisel had found, at some cost to their vanity and self-esteem; perhaps even to a deeper feeling — who knows?

I'd much rather fall in love with Trilby O'Farrel than with, say, Madame Bovary...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:30 AM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2008

Home... so nice after a week plus on the road. Nothing's quite as wonderful as coming home to family. I boxed and wrestled with the thrilling nine-year-old, and realized just how lucky I am to have somehow persuaded my wife to marry me. And finally, even the ideocat is happy to have me home. After months of eschewing mousing, he left one at the front door for me to step over when I returned home.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2008

Ska now playing in Richmond. The music is louder. The boy has left. The girl doesn't seem quite so radiant...

Madness is lame. Terry Hall is the best.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:31 PM | Comments (0)

My fountain pen

My father is far more practical than I.

When he was in college, and ballpoint pens cost a fortune, he used to use an eye dropper to refill the little plastic tube in his expensive Bic ball points with fountain pen ink. When ball points are cheap and plentiful, I insist on spending a fortune on fountain pens, which often go wrong.

Everything's a luxury. Even writing.

Meanwhile, the miserable couple is no longer entirely so miserable in my smoky Richmond bar (perhaps in a nod to sex and Sufism, I'll give up tobacco altogether). The young lady is surrounded by six friends--mostly female, but two males. She seems to be the center of attention, and the more attention she gets, the more miserable her paramour seems to be. Or so it seemed until my view was blocked by a rather heavy set man standing at the end of the bar...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:05 PM | Comments (0)

Sitting in a bar... Richmond, Virginia. A lot of smoking -- I have a cigar with me, but I really needn't have bothered to bring it.

Of late I've been thinking of Sufis and sex, of ephemeral esoterica and physical immediacy -- there's a post there somewhere but I can't quite dope it out, and the big notebook I brought along to jot down my notes on the problem is now filled instead with doodles and thoughts on campaign finance and grant proposals.

A young couple just walked into the bar, looking for all the world like they'd rather be anywhere else than with each other--perhaps a few drinks will reconcile all differences.

The Beatles are playing on the sound system, I'm almost sure of it, though it's a bit too noisy to actually know what the songs are. Perhaps like an odor, I can detect McCartney's voice lingering above the conversations.

I half wish I had my cards with me (no, I don't -- cards in a bar can lead to legal problems). I practiced card tricks the whole way from D.C. to Richmond, which prevented me from being distracted by Sufis and Sex, or the prospect of drinking in a smoky bar in Richmond.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:47 PM | Comments (0)

March 14, 2008


A wonderful article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (sadly not online, but you can hear an interview with Gopnik about the piece here). In the article, Jamy Ian Swiss, one of the magicians Gopnik profiles, explains something fundamental about magic. He used to entertain a favorite cousin of his when he was a boy:

I would show her the Color Vision box, over and over, and she loved me for doing it. She couldn't get enough of it. But she kept begging me and begging me to show her how I did it, and at last I did. And she was furious -- absolutely furious! The trick was so simple, even stupid. I learned a huge lesson that day, and not just not to tell civilians the secrets. It was more complicated and ambiguous than that, and it's taken me years to work out all of its meanings. It was" -- he paused -- "it was that the trick was not the trick, and that it was the interchange between us that was the source of the effect."

A couple months ago, I decided to start learning magic tricks. I can do five card tricks reasonably well (although I've only tried four of them in front of people), and two others are becoming more comfortable. The one I do best (I think), largely because part of the effect depends upon making the audience (so far, just my wife and son) believe that I'm going to mess up the trick -- something not hard for them to believe -- depends on nothing more than my being able to remember a single card. (It doesn't sound hard, but when combined with the patter, the gestures and the rest of the routine, I'm always afraid I've forgotten it -- was it the eight of clubs or spades?)

The real problem I have is a lack of dexterity in my fingers, and a tendency to move my hands too quickly when I should be confident enough to go slowly (that is, rushing only draws attention, while a natural movement would not be noticed). The only way to improve is to practice, practice, practice--the trick I feel I do reasonably well I probably did 100 times before I tried it out on my little audience. I wonder if one can develop a basic proficiency in simple card tricks, starting at the advanced age of 43...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:18 PM | Comments (0)

March 10, 2008

Presence, absinthe

Wandering on Sin Street today (martini bar, massage parlors, gentlemen's club, cigar store, Malaysian restaurant), I paid a visit to one of the finest liquor stores in Washington, and came across a bottle of this, which I didn't buy, largely because I lack the requisite accoutrements for enjoying the ritual.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)

Chesterton on Nietzsche

From the book on Shaw:

All that was true in his teaching was this: that if a man looks fine on a horse it is so far irrelevant to tell him that he would be more economical on a donkey or more humane on a tricycle. In other words, the mere achievement of dignity, beauty, or triumph is strictly to be called a good thing.
Posted by Ideofact at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)

C is for Chopin

God, why don't I listen to Chopin more often?

And why am I reminded of this?

In other news, I'd much rather be thinking of this.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:36 AM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2008

A photo


Posted by Ideofact at 12:15 AM | Comments (0)

A favorite story

Somewhere (perhaps I can find it on the shelf ... though it's not where I thought it would be ... in The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Third Series, edited by George Plimpton) I have a translation of an interview conducted with the French poet Jean Cocteau shortly before his death. Cocteau, a polymath if there ever was one, was living in a house filled with manuscripts, sculptures, line drawings, paintings, ceramics, books and other things he'd made with his own hands. The interviewer asked him, if the house were to catch fire, and he could save only one thing, what would be? Cocteau replied, without missing a beat,

"Oh, definitely, the fire!"

Posted by Ideofact at 12:10 AM | Comments (0)

March 08, 2008

To life

One doesn't need reasons to love Shaw, but he nevertheless provides us with so many of them. Here is another deduced by Chesterton:

Roughly speaking, Schopenhauer maintained that life is unreasonable. The intellect, if it could be impartial, would tell us to cease; but a blind partiality, an instinct quite distinct from thought, drives us on to take desperate chances in an essentially bankrupt lottery. Shaw seems to accept this dingy estimate of the rational outlook, but adds a somewhat arresting comment. Schopenhauer had said, "Life is unreasonable; so much the worse for all living things." Shaw said, "Life is unreasonable; so much the worse for reason." Life is the higher call, life we must follow. It may be that there is some undetected fallacy in reason itself. Perhaps the whole man cannot get inside his own head any more than he can jump down his own throat. But there is about the need to live, to suffer, and to create that imperative quality which can truly be called supernatural, of whose voice it can indeed be said that it speaks with authority, and not as the scribes.

This is the first and finest item of the original Bernard Shaw creed: that if reason says that life is irrational, life must be content to reply that reason is lifeless; life is the primary thing, and if reason impedes it, then reason must be trodden down into the mire amid the most abject superstitions.

Life is the important thing--something that my own life is proving to me with a sad empiricism. Nothing demonstrates so well the subordination of reason to life as seeing family and close friends struggle and suffer with illness and with death,

Posted by Ideofact at 12:35 PM | Comments (1)

March 06, 2008

Two good bits...

...from G.K. Chesterton. The first is a line with a wonderfully oxymoron:

Only those who have stooped to be in advance of their time will ever find themselves behind it.

The second I'm not quite as sure about; certainly it's true of some of Shaw's plays, but not all (Man and Superman springs immediately to mind):

Shaw wrote Cæsar and Cleopatra; Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra and also Julius Cæsar. And exactly what annoys Bernard Shaw about Shakespeare's version is this: that Shakespeare has an open mind or, in other words, that Shakespeare has really written a problem play. Shakespeare sees quite as clearly as Shaw that Brutus is unpractical and ineffectual; but he also sees, what is quite as plain and practical a fact, that these ineffectual men do capture the hearts and influence the policies of mankind. Shaw would have nothing said in favour of Brutus; because Brutus is on the wrong side in politics. Of the actual problem of public and private morality, as it was presented to Brutus, he takes actually no notice at all. He can write the most energetic and outspoken of propaganda plays; but he cannot rise to a problem play. He cannot really divide his mind and let the two parts speak independently to each other. He has never, so to speak, actually split his head in two; though I daresay there are many other people who are willing to do it for him.

I think this last bit is wrong -- it seems to me that John Tanner and Ann Whitefield would split a mind in two; it also seems to me that Shaw's characters, whether Cleopatra or Captain Bluntschli, the intensely pragmatic professional mercenary, in Arms and the Man require a certain amount of schizophrenia. Shaw's problems may all work out the way he intends (I would argue that they just as often don't), but he also breathes so much life into each of his characters that it is fairer to say that Shaw splits himself not in half, but into a thousand splinters, each with its own motives and character.

Borges wrote of Shaw:

The biography of Bernard Shaw by Frank Harris contains an admirable letter by the former, from which I copy the following words: "I understand everything and everyone and thus I am nothing and no one." From this nothingness (so comparable to that of God before creating the world, so comparable to that primordial divinity which another Irishman, Johannes Scotus Erigena, called Nihil), Bernard Shaw educed almost innumerable persons or dramatis personae: the most ephemeral of these is, I suspect, that G. B. S. who represented him in public and who lavished in the newspaper columns so many facile witticisms.
Posted by Ideofact at 11:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2008

P is for Shaw...

...when P stands for Puritan. G.K. Chesterton argued, here, that the three keys to understanding Shaw's work (three keys misunderstood by the British public at large) were his Irish heritage, his Puritan background and his progressive politics. These elements led Shaw to some fight some battles on unexpected terrain. Chesterton writes of the banning of Mrs. Warren's Profession, also available for online reading here, by a certain Mr. Redford, who was the Censor of Plays. Mrs. Warren runs a brothel; her daughter grows up in the lap of luxury unaware (until the action of the play) of how her mother makes her money. Chesterton explains how Shaw attacked the Censor, the preserver of public morals banning a work on prostitution, to defend his play:

The dramatist found in the quarrel one of the important occasions of his life, because the crisis called out something in him which is in many ways his highest quality—righteous indignation. As a mere matter of the art of controversy of course he carried the war into the enemy's camp at once. He did not linger over loose excuses for licence; he declared at once that the Censor was licentious, while he, Bernard Shaw, was clean. He did not discuss whether a Censorship ought to make the drama moral. He declared that it made the drama immoral. With a fine strategic audacity he attacked the Censor quite as much for what he permitted as for what he prevented. He charged him with encouraging all plays that attracted men to vice and only stopping those which discouraged them from it. Nor was this attitude by any means an idle paradox. Many plays appear (as Shaw pointed out) in which the prostitute and the procuress are practically obvious, and in which they are represented as revelling in beautiful surroundings and basking in brilliant popularity. The crime of Shaw was not that he introduced the Gaiety Girl; that had been done, with little enough decorum, in a hundred musical comedies. The crime of Shaw was that he introduced the Gaiety Girl, but did not represent her life as all gaiety. The pleasures of vice were already flaunted before the playgoers. It was the perils of vice that were carefully concealed from them. The gay adventures, the gorgeous dresses, the champagne and oysters, the diamonds and motor-cars, dramatists were allowed to drag all these dazzling temptations before any silly housemaid in the gallery who was grumbling at her wages. But they were not allowed to warn her of the vulgarity and the nausea, the dreary deceptions and the blasting diseases of that life. Mrs. Warren's Profession was not up to a sufficient standard of immorality; it was not spicy enough to pass the Censor. The acceptable and the accepted plays were those which made the fall of a woman fashionable and fascinating; for all the world as if the Censor's profession were the same as Mrs. Warren's profession.

That passage really captures Shaw's essential genius--the last line is almost Shavian.


Posted by Ideofact at 01:15 AM | Comments (0)

B is for Bernard ...

Normally on ideofact, Bernard is followed by the word "Shaw," as in George Bernard. More later on Shaw -- I read an amazing passage from Chesterton that I think gets to the complications of Shaw, who in many ways was as much of a champion of "traditional values" as Jonah Goldberg (something I started going into here). No, this is a post about Bernard Sumner...

I used to joke with a good friend that New Order songs all had the same theme--I've been such a nice guy, but for some reason you won't talk to me, and now what am I going to do? Think of either the opening line of Blue Monday -- "Tell me how does it feel to treat me the way you do," or, say, these lines from Love Less:

I spent a lifetime working on you
And you won't even talk to me

My characterization was unfair to Sumner, who has the very rare ability--whether in pop music, politics, journalism or literature--to write very simply and directly. Consider Electronic's song "Getting Away With It", and the refrain -- "However I look it's clear to see that I love you more than you love me," or the song's opening couplet,

I've been walking in the rain just to get wet on purpose,
I've been forcing myself not to forget just to feel worse

Lately I've been cheered by the song Regret, the single from the very uneven Republic album. I like the almost alchemical feel of the line, "You used to be a perfect stranger, now you are mine" -- it's incredible to me that so many of us now go through life like this. A century or so ago (in some parts of the world right now) you married in your village or your clan, within your congregation or county -- there was no such thing as a perfect stranger. By the time of my sophomore year as an undergraduate, every woman with whom I became involved had, just a few weeks before or less (mostly much less), been a perfect stranger, including the one I married (some would say tricked into marrying me, and I won't argue). Of course, relationships also spring up all the time between people who have known each other for quite a bit more time -- friends and co-workers -- and I suspect that our companies and companions substitute rather nicely for county or congregation, binding people quite closely.

Regret, incidentally, isn't about such bonds -- Sumner sings,

Maybe I've forgotten the name and the address
Of everyone I've ever known
It's nothing I regret

Some assume that the song is about drug addiction (read the comments here, for example) and I suppose it could be (although it could also be about illness or depression -- the lines, "Wake up every day that would be a start/I would not complain of my wounded heart" are open to interpretation); I prefer not to read so much into pop lyrics. The upbeat quality of the music backing them often says as much as the words -- and there's nothing to regret about that.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:23 AM | Comments (0)